Saturday, January 12, 2013

5 Tips for Cooking for a Picky Eater

Or, total TMI about how I got my husband to voluntarily eat a mango on his chicken flatbread tonight.

To those of you who are not picky eaters or have never cooked for one, this post will probably make you think that I am obsessive and ridiculous. Perhaps I am. Don't judge.

I was the kid who hated the hot lunch program and wrote letters to my mother petitioning her to let me bring a sack lunch. Hot lunch meant carefully planning which foods to skip based on what I could give away, what I could trade, what could be stirred around/hidden to make it look like I had eaten the requisite half, what could be swallowed without chewing/tasting, and finally, what I would actually eat. I was really less concerned about going hungry than being allowed to leave the lunchroom.
I grew up. Fortunately, my current food reality is very little like the hot lunch program at my elementary school. There are no gag-me-mashed potatoes made from flakes, no mystery ground meats covered in tomato sauce served as a main dish, no canned corn, and no lunch lady checking my tray and infringing upon my recess time. However, I still do not enjoy some foods -- leafy things, raw tomatoes, meat with bones in it ...

Our house has two picky eaters: Myself, and the one that I married. I find myself easy to feed. Jon, however, follows a complex set of rules. A brief sampling of Jon's law of consumption:

  • Nuts are okay in pie or alone, but not in banana bread or apple crisp topping.
  • Blueberries are ideally in pie, acceptable in coffee cake or muffins (but "blueberry chips" are preferable (disgusting)), and blueberries ruin pancakes. 
  • Lunch meat must be turkey not ham, and can't have a stringy thing around the edge. 
  • Fruits absolutely cannot be blended into a smoothie, but salsa absolutely MUST be blended. 
  • Salads are eaten for appearances and mothers only and complained about later. 
  • Red grapes good, green grapes bad. Or was that the other way around? 
  • Sunflower seeds are good if you get to chew them out of the shell (salted only) and spit the shells, but are no longer good if they are already shelled and could be consumed as a normal food. 
  • Coconut milk or coconut oil can be substituted if it can't be tasted and the eater is unaware; however, the food is rejected upon discovery of use a coconut product, even if it tastes invisible in the dish. 
  • Meat cannot be served with a fruit ingredient (raspberry/chicken, apple/pork, pineapple/ham, no no no). Obviously pineapple cannot be served with ham, because --
  • Pineapple is uneatable unless it is the main ingredient in a cooking competition.

I am not making this up.

Everyone in our house would be happy and obese if I served pizza for every meal. I would be very happy. I would field no complaints, which would make me even happier. We could rotate between fresh, frozen, and takeout. (Of course, the only toppings to choose from per Jon's statutes are pepperoni, bacon, or both. Plain cheese is too boring. Anything else is vile).

I do not enjoy being picky. It's is a hassle. My general goal is to broaden the variety of foods that we eat, especially produce. (I have no desire to teach either of us to like mayonnaise or mustard or oyster soup.) More freedom of menu means:
  1. Healthier options
  2. More flexibility when eating at someone else's house (oh you are serving salad and brats and devilled eggs? I will just have a brownie.)
  3. Less mealtime stress at home
The following are some strategies I have embraced in cooking for my picky eater. I think that aversions to certain foods are largely mental as well as simply "not liking" a taste or texture. My experience is limited to cooking for myself and my husband and hasn't been field tested on children, which I'm sure is a different realm entirely.

1. Include the picky eater in the cooking

When the picky eater is involved in the planning, prep, and production of a meal, they're more likely to enjoy it. It is very difficult for a picky eater to eat something when they don't know what is in it. Suspicious sauces, soups, and salads can all harbor a dreaded "mystery ingredient" that would ruin it for a picky eater. Obviously this is not a cure-all. If you included me in your making of egg salad, I still wouldn't eat it. However, knowing what exactly is in the food being eaten does calm some (totally rational) fears about what mayonnaise or coconut product might be lurking in the menu.

2. Chop questionable ingredients finely and work up

A prime example: the onion. Dreaded by children and some adults.
Original review: Jon --  eat only as onion rings. Me -- do not eat.
Current review: 80% cure. Not acceptable in large slices.
We got over the onion by chopping it very very finely. There is a button for this task: puree. I'm sure Iron Chef would frown severely, but this method worked for us! By beginning with onion paste and working up to finely chopped onion, and then to more of a normal (?) chopped onion, eventually onion became a safe food. This took about a year plus. We did essentially the same thing with peppers. Yes. Jon pureed a red bell pepper and put it in a stir fry.

3. Incorporate questionable foods with familiar foods

Find just one way that the picky eater LIKES to eat a certain ingredient by paring the scary food with a safe food. For example, fettuccine alfredo (safe) with spinach (scary). Broccoli (scary) with cheese sauce (safe). Brussels sprouts (scary) with bacon (safe). Avoid large amounts of scary ingredients, and please avoid combining scary ingredients; spinach salad with brussels sprouts and broccoli is too much to handle. Once the picky eater knows they like spinach in a creamy pasta, they may try it in a smoothie or an enchilada or eventually ... A SALAD. I haven't reached that point. The leafs. I can't do it.

4. Plan "build your own" meals

This would include meals such as wraps, paninis, salads, mini pizzas, or stir fry where each person chooses what to include on their food. This reduces mealtime drama by accommodating certain food dislikes without having to make multiple dishes. If you don't like it, don't put it on. Or, just put a little on. In our house this also encompasses meals like waffles or pancakes, which I sometimes prefer to eat with fruit and Jon prefers butter and syrup.

5. Compromise

I am perfectly content eating a "BLT" with only bacon and cheddar and don't want Jon ruining it by slapping a tomato on there. In the same way, I like banana bread with nuts but I make it without. Every meal should not be a battle. Food should be enjoyable! The point of expanding our food horizons was so we could enjoy more foods, not to be continually eating something we don't like yet.

Something delicious:

Tonight we ate these homemade soft wraps (revised from this recipe) with avocado, grilled chicken, mango, red pepper. The flat bread was a new recipe, and we really liked how it turned out!

Note that the red peppers are chopped and not pureed :)

For this picky eater experiment, I chose a recipe with safe foods (bread, avocado, chicken) combined with questionable foods (pepper, mango, and combining meat and fruit). I already broke my own rules by attacking multiple questionable foods at once. I omitted red onion from the recipe because there was enough going on. I ended up doing the chopping myself since some football event was on and I was unable to enlist my picky eater as sous chef. I brought him a cube of mango while he was watching football and he liked it plain. I did set up a "build it yourself" meal with the mango diced instead of in large slices like the original recipe. Interestingly, when Jon came to the table he got out a knife and chopped his red pepper into smaller slices.

He then proceeded to build himself a wrap with all the available ingredients (!) without any whining prompting from me to please eat something that is not brown. Ate the whole thing, then built another. Success!

1 comment:

  1. This post is hilarious, and the food (minus the school lunch picture) looks delicious. I think the principles are the same with kids, except you are also allowed to do things like threaten to take their possessions away if they don't take a bite.

    I agree with your methods, but I think another key with onions is to brown them in some oil or butter until they carmelize. And it depends what kind you get too. Walla walla sweet onions are...sweet. Some types are much better than others.


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